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How Certain Scents Create Vivid Memories

Updated on January 16, 2020

Everyone remembers when they smelled cotton candy at the fair. The sweetness filling the surrounding air, you could almost see the fluffy pink stuff swirling around the machine, drawing you closer. Or waffle cones at the ice cream shop, as soon as you walked anywhere near it, you wanted that sweet item- whether it was a waffle cone, or you just thought that ice cream really smelled that strongly and was amazing. Or the smell of salty ocean water and how if the wind blew strong enough, you thought the salt would stick to your face and you would become a human salt lick. Or Grandma... Just Grandma...

When you first encounter a particular scent, it gets embedded in your brain as a particular memory so whenever you smell that scent, you remember where you were, who was there, what you saw, and even how you felt. This is because the nose connects to the brain so closely to the area associated with long-term memory.

Childhood Memories

You always remember what Grandma smelled like when you gave her a hug. She either smelled like what I like to call a "classic" perfume, otherwise known as "Old Lady Perfume," or maybe something else not as pleasant. Either way, whenever you smell it now, you instantly think of your Grandmother, and probably remember what she wore most often, her clothes, her jewelry, her glasses.

High School Memories

Walking past the boys' locker room after gym class and the only thing visible was a cloud of Axe body spray. Walking past the girls' locker room and everything smelled like Victoria's Secret this and American Eagle that. Then the lunchroom... All kinds of good stuff happened there...

High school could arguably be the most impressionable time in a person's life because of all the peer pressure to smell good and come off as attractive to the other classmates and any crushes that may be had.


The simple scent of vanilla can trigger many types of memories, because vanilla is such a common scent. When mixed with any kind of warm scent, such as a cream or sugary scent, it can remind one of Autumn and cool weather and the leaves changing. Strip it down and add peppermint, and you have the perfect Winter scent for Holiday parties. When vanilla is mixed with any kind of fruit scent, such as strawberries or plums, it can remind one of the Spring time. Any kind of flowery combination, such as vanilla and rose, daisy, sunflower, plumeria, etc., can also cause one to reminisce about warmer weather and birds chirping early in the morning.

Vanilla also is often used as a basic comfort scent. Many women wear it because it's simple, and many men like for that same reason. It is also often used to fragrance houses because of its simplicity.

Vanilla Bean

Something as simple as just seeing a vanilla flower and beans can make one's mouth water with the thought of the sweet creamy flavor and aroma
Something as simple as just seeing a vanilla flower and beans can make one's mouth water with the thought of the sweet creamy flavor and aroma


Coconuts, much like the beach air, can trigger memories from the same life experience or memory. For example, when you went to the beach as a little kid, your mom had to slather you with sunscreen, which for the most part mostly smells like coconut mixed with plain sunscreen lotion, so whenever you smell that particular smell of sunscreen, you think back to that wonderful, or miserable, time at the beach where you made a really awesome sand castle, or were attacked by a flock of sea gulls wanting to eat your lunch.

Beach Memories

The beach is probably one of the strongest and most vivid memories for a young person, especially for one who does not live near a beach. A child will always remember every sense that is engaged when visiting the beach, but the sense that will bring back the most memories, more than a photograph, will be the smell of sunscreen, and the salty ocean air.

Salty beach air

By looking at a sunshine-covered beach, one already can feel the warmth and with every breeze, smell the salty mist in the air.
By looking at a sunshine-covered beach, one already can feel the warmth and with every breeze, smell the salty mist in the air.


No, not the Mac product you're probably using right now, but the fruit it's named after. I really don't think that apples have that strong of a scent so much as a flavor. If they did have a stronger, or maybe more marketable, scent, you would apple-scented and -flavored products everywhere instead of pumpkin. Or maybe apples have had so much time in the spotlight, being "as American as apple pie," that pumpkins never had a chance, so marketing companies took advantage of a potentially underrated fruit, the pumpkin, and processed it and made it appealing to consumers, and they bought it, and ate it, up!


Pumpkin-scented things are always popular during the Fall. It may be a gimmick with so many people claiming that pumpkin lattes are the greatest thing since coffee was brewed, or it may be that companies are just throwing pumpkin-scented and -flavored products out there to see just how popular pumpkins are. I'm sure companies are finding out that Fall-lovers never tire of pumpkin anything.

However, with all this mass consumption of artificial pumpkin, you can't help but wonder if real pumpkin lovers even know what an actual pumpkin smells like when you cut it open. Sure, they might remember helping their dad carve it when they were kids, but to get that real pumpkin-y smell, you had to practically put your head into the hollowed out cavity with the seeds to get the real smell of it! And when compared to the, in comparison, over-bearing smell of the consumer pumpkin products, people think the artificial one smells better, might be richer, stronger, laced with cinnamon and other "pumpkin spices" to enhance the aroma and thus continue the sales of the products. One could question how can fake be better than real, but that's another topic...

As far as artificial smells compared to real ones, there is no comparison. A real, natural, organic smell just brings something to the table that fabricated ones simply can't.

This exists...

I get the cinnamon flavor, since it already exists for gum, but pumpkin spice?... I don't want to be paid in this gum.
I get the cinnamon flavor, since it already exists for gum, but pumpkin spice?... I don't want to be paid in this gum.


Candles are a great way to relive the past, especially with an older candle that hasn't been lit in years but when you open the lid of it and all the fragrance that has been stagnant for so long is finally released, all the memories behind that scent are released and relived along with it. Like if the time is mid-October and someone lights a candle that is scented as Springtime Kisses or something like that which is basically like a flowery meadow, the room will smell like Spring time, and not just because the name says so. The way the brain is programmed will associate and categorize memories by ways of familiarization. Since this Springtime Kisses associates a flowery meadow with the season of Spring, the brain will think it's Spring and not Fall, even if the eyes see the leaves are different colors and the birds are not chirping like they usually do in the Springtime.

So, candles can change how one thinks of memories just by a simple whiff.

And POOF!!

You don't know what time of the year it is now!
You don't know what time of the year it is now!

© 2014 Tawny


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